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    October 2014

    Pool Practices for Nonaquatic Athletes

    picture of indoor swimming pool

    A review of recent K-12 and higher education drowning claims shows that when nonaquatic sports teams conduct alternative practices in pools, students are at a higher risk of injury or death. Consider these examples:

    • A cross country athlete drowned when the coach left the team unsupervised to practice water running drills in an indoor pool. Team members were not using the recommended flotation belt.
    • An international student who couldn’t swim drowned when a soccer team conducted an alternative pool workout. No coach ever asked him if he could swim.

    When nonaquatic teams conduct pool practices, injuries often occur because swimming skills are assumed or not assessed. Athletic ability in one sport does not transfer to another, and even athletes in excellent physical condition may not know how to swim. Coaches should not assume that all athletes can swim or are physically able to practice outside their normal environments.

    Failure to determine an athlete’s ability and comfort level in a pool is particularly risky when the team includes vulnerable populations: first-year students, international students, or students with disabilities. These athletes may not understand the workout, may never be asked about comfort or familiarity with swimming, and be too afraid to speak up.

    A common defense in athletic injury cases is that the athlete assumed the risks of his or her sport. It is much more difficult to present this defense when practices occur outside of the sport's normal routine.


    Alternative pool practices prevent loss of workout days due to inclement weather. Cross training athletes can improve conditioning and performance. To confront the risks of alternative pool practices, consider these practices:

    • Before the season begins, obtain approval for pool practices from an administrator who is responsible for safety issues, such as the athletic director. The administrator should know what venues are available, safety protocols, and the availability of lifeguards—particularly if practices are scheduled when lifeguards ordinarily would not be on duty.
    • Coaches should review any emergency action plan to make sure it covers alternative practices conducted in the pool. There should be an emergency action plan for each sport and venue.
    • Each athlete should pass a swim test before beginning an alternative pool practice. Test requirements should be developed with the assistance of lifeguards and swimming coaches; common elements include swimming the length of the pool and treading water for one minute.
    • A certified lifeguard should provide constant supervision at the pool during practice. All coaches who serve as lifeguards should be certified and relieved of any coaching responsibility. An appropriate swimmer-to-lifeguard ratio should be observed.
    • Allow athletes to acclimate to the water. Students should not be expected to practice at maximum intensity immediately. Allow them to get comfortable with the new workout.
    • Use appropriate equipment, including flotation devices, if necessary.
    • All lifeguards, coaches, and athletic trainers should be trained on cardiopulmonary resuscitation, automated external defibrillators, and first aid.
    • Do not violate your school’s own policies. Ensure that pool safety rules are prominently posted and followed at all times. Trained lifeguards are most knowledgeable about pool rules and policies.
    • Use releases and assumption of risk forms when appropriate. The list of known risks must be specific and should include examples of alternative pool practices.


    What’s Causing Athletic Injuries?
    Minors and the Use of Releases
    St. Paul’s School’s Athletic Swim Test Requirement for 2013-14

    By Joe Vossen, JD, associate risk management counsel


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